money matters

Coloradans seeking more school funding inch closer to 2018 ballot

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Fourth graders at College View Elementary in Denver.

Proponents of increasing funding for Colorado’s public schools cleared a major hurdle this week in their attempt to ask voters to bump up taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents.

A state panel made up of representatives from the legislature, attorney general’s and secretary of state’s offices on Wednesday approved language for eight different ballot initiatives that, if any one is approved by voters in November, would raise between $1.4 billion and $1.7 billion more for Colorado schools.

While each proposal varies slightly, each would create a new graduated income tax on individuals making more than $150,000. Some proposals would also create a new corporate tax, while others would make modifications to how personal and commercial property is taxed for schools. Some do all three.

The backers of the measures — Martha Olson of Boulder and Donald Anderson of Fort Collins — expect to file another 10 initiatives with the Secretary of State by the end of the month. Altogether, they will ask the state to approve nearly 20 different versions of the same concept. Individuals and groups seeking to put questions on the ballot sometimes float a few different versions of the same question to test political viability.

Ultimately, though, voters will vote on just one of the various proposals — if Olson and Anderson and their network of supporters can gather enough signatures to place one on the ballot.

The state’s approval of the ballot language comes on the eve of the 2018 legislative session where lawmakers are at the midpoint of studying and — if an agreement can be reached — updating the way the state funds its schools.

Taken together, 2018 could be a watershed year for the school finance debate that has bedeviled lawmakers and school leaders alike for decades.

It could also be the year everything falls apart: There’s no guarantee that lawmakers will reach consensus on how to update the funding system. And any ballot initiative faces a steep upward battle — especially after voters made it more difficult to pass such measures.

This election also will also feature a deeply partisan gubernatorial race — the likes of which the state hasn’t seen in decades. And the specter of President Trump’s Washington will loom large in congressional races.

Olson and Anderson, who are working with some of the state’s most ardent supporters of increasing school funding, acknowledged the long road ahead, but said it was imperative for the voters to act.

“It’s an enormous effort,” Olson, a former New York educator, said. “But there’s a growing recognition that something has to be done. … Our kids can’t wait.”

Colorado’s state constitution requires voters to approve all new tax increases. Voters have so far rejected every proposed tax increase for schools put before them. The last time voters considered a tax increase in 2013, it was defeated two-to-one.

And now after the 2017 election, there’s an even higher threshold to pass such constitutional amendments — 55 percent of voters. Voters approved the higher threshold at the last election.

Anderson, who is a father of two students in the Poudre School District in Fort Collins, said he hopes a greater grassroots push and clear messaging about how much additional revenue each school district stands to receive will help them succeed where others have failed.

“The biggest part is building a good base,” Anderson said.

He added that one of the reasons he got involved is because of the growing inequities among school districts that have passed local tax increases for schools and those that haven’t.

“We’ve been lucky, out voters have stepped up,” Anderson said. “But from corner to corner, that isn’t the case. And the challenges we face as a whole really irritates me.”

Not everyone in the education community is anxious to ask voters again for more money.

“Colorado voters have been really clear that they want schools to be prioritized but aren’t willing to invest more,” said Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for conservative education reform policies including charter schools and school quality ratings.

Ragland said he hopes that lawmakers can come up with better ways to spend the more than $6.5 billion in tax dollars the state already sends to schools.

“I’m getting really frustrated with the conversation that nothing can change until we have more money,” Ragland said. “There are things we can do to improve the way we fund schools that can help kids immediately.”

Supporters of increased school funding point to numerous different reports that put Colorado at or near the bottom in spending per pupil. This year the state is spending about $6,546 per student. Conservatives argue, however, that a more accurate number is closer to $10,000 when you factor in local tax increases, grants and federal dollars.

Supporters, likely opponents and political observers all say it is unclear whether the political climate of 2018 will help or hinder their cause.

On one hand, a billion dollar tax increase could hinder the chances of Democrats winning seats. While on the other, progressives and Democrats dissatisfied with the Trump administration are expected to turn out in far greater numbers for a midterm election.

“I have to believe it’s going to be a big Democratic turnout,” said Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver. “I actually think it’s a good time for a progressive ballot initiative. An income tax might not be popular, but given the climate in Washington and the 1 percent doing so well — it may not be a losing position.”

Teske previously sat on the board of Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for greater school funding and that is consulting with Olson and Anderson on the ballot initiatives.

Ragland, the conservative, echoed Teske’s sentiment that Democrats are likely to have a banner year but cautioned that much can change between now and November.

“If you look at who has the wind at heir back, it’s definitely the folks on the left,” Ragland said. “But it’s a long way until Election Day.”

Investment strategy

Here are the initiatives Memphis’ education philanthropists will focus on in 2018

PHOTO: Matt Detrich/The Indianapolis Star
A charter leader from Indianapolis, Marcus Robinson is now CEO of the Memphis Education Fund, a philanthropic collaborative that invests in education improvement initiatives for Memphis schools.

A Memphis philanthropic group has shed its “Teacher Town” name but still plans to spend this year recruiting new teachers while also investing in growing the city’s single-site charter operators.

Unlike similar organizations in other cities across the country, the Memphis Education Fund plans to center its search locally — by helping local universities and groups prepare teachers for the challenges of urban education.

Originally called Teacher Town, the fund was created in 2014 by Memphis education leaders and local philanthropists with a goal of transforming Memphis into a destination city for talented teachers. That vision built on a major investment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve teaching in the city.

In 2016, the group adopted a broader goal of improving all schools; brought in a new leader, Marcus Robinson, from Indianapolis; and joined Education Cities, a national collective of local groups seeking to reshape schools in their cities

In part inspired by changes that have taken place in Indianapolis, where Robinson had worked as a charter leader, Education Cities coordinates local groups advocating for the “portfolio model,” a vision in which cities have more charter schools and let district schools operate more like charters.

Robinson told Education Cities a year ago that his next step for Memphis would be “to unite everyone around a common set of operating principles, expectations, and evaluations to create a level playing field for each operator to perform optimally.” This appears to be in line with the portfolio vision, which aims to give all schools flexibility to operate as they see fit, while holding them equally accountability for results.

But instead of bringing the Shelby County Schools district and local charter operators closer together, 2017 saw them waging open competition for students.

For 2018, Robinson is tackling priorities that are not likely to inflame divisions. The fund will continue to focus on principal training, along with helping single-site charter organizations, boosting reading skills among the city’s youngest students, and recruiting new Memphis teachers.

“We’re hell-bent to fill classrooms with teachers,” said Robinson, pointing to elementary schools as having some of the greatest need.

Memphis will need an estimated 3,600 new teachers by 2020, said Lesley Brown, who directs how the fund invests its money to attract, develop and retain talent for local schools.

Rather than recruiting teachers from outside of Memphis, Teacher Town’s original focus, Robinson said the fund is strengthening partnerships with local universities and teacher preparation programs, such as one launched at Rhodes College in 2016 with the help of a $7 million gift from the fund.

The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. (Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

Robinson added that the fund also is ramping up its support for single-site charter operators, such as helping teachers implement new literacy curriculum at Memphis Delta Preparatory Charter School and STAR Academy Charter School.

“There’s less of an appetite for national charter organizations to move into Memphis,” he said. ”The next phase isn’t national CMOs (charter management organizations), but how do we encourage single-site schools to evolve.”

The group has doled out such grants to charters as part of a larger effort to boost student reading levels and develop teacher training for Core Knowledge Language Arts and KIPP Wheatley.

“Early literacy is a huge focus,” Robinson told Chalkbeat. “When we look at the test scores, early elementary scores are horrific. What’s the root? Access to quality literacy instruction.”

Paying for school

Sweeping study proposes major changes to the way schools are funded in Michigan

Michigan needs to change the way it funds education so that schools get more money for students who need extra attention — such as those who live in poverty and those who don’t yet have a strong command of the English language.

That’s the top recommendation from a prominent group of educators, policymakers, and business leaders who have been studying Michigan’s school funding system for much of the past two years.

While many states use a complex formula that gives schools more money if they serve children facing extra challenges, Michigan has long used a system that distributes the same amount of money for virtually all students, regardless of their needs.

The state provides some extra funding for students with disabilities — but not nearly enough, according to a state study last year that found schools across Michigan are getting $700 million less a year than they need to serve those students.

The study released Wednesday recommends a major restructuring so that schools would be fully funded for special education programs and would get extra funds to provide resources to students who need extra help. With that money, schools could offer lower class sizes, add counselors and social workers, and give teachers more support, the report says.

The study was conducted by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates on behalf of the Michigan School Finance Research Collaborative.

The collaborative — including top business and education leaders across the state — came together in 2016 after an earlier “school adequacy study” was largely ignored by political leaders.

The earlier study, which was funded by the state legislature, recommended that the state significantly increase the amount of money it sends to schools per student.

The collaborative hopes this new more robust study, which clocks in at more than 300 data-packed pages, will have a greater impact.

Since this study used multiple methods to determine the right funding level for schools, it will be more difficult to ignore, the group hopes.

The study — paid for with $843,000 from major foundations and 18 county school districts — included interviews with hundreds of educators, including district and charters school teachers. Those interviews helped researchers determine how much money schools need to more effectively do their jobs.

The study examined geographic cost differences in different parts of the state, labor cost differences, and other factors and determined that schools need approximately $9,590 each for students who don’t have special needs, including funds that would come from the state and federal governments.

The study recommends that schools get 35 percent more for students living in poverty, between 50 and 70 percent more for students who are learning English, 70 percent more for students with mild disabilities and 115 percent more for students with moderate disabilities.

Among other recommendations in the  report is that charter schools receive the same per-student funding as districts. Currently, the state’s funding system pays some districts more per student than others based largely on historic funding levels as opposed to current needs. Some districts — including most charter schools — are currently getting around $7,600 per child from the state while others get thousands of dollars more

It’s difficult to compare how much funding schools are getting now with the proposed $9,590 per student because schools get a mix state and federal dollars and the $9,590 doesn’t include things like transportation dollars.

The report suggests that the state use a new approach to student transportation in which transportation dollars are distributed differently, taking into account differences between urban and rural school districts.

The report did not put a price tag on the cost of implementing the recommendations and did not spell out how Michigan could come up with the extra money. But members of the collaborative said they hope lawmakers will consider the report as they make policy changes. 

“The issue here is not about whether you live in Farmington or whether you live in Ingham County, it’s about every child ought to have the opportunity to be successful and that ought to be our goal in Michigan,” said Randy Liepa, the Superintendent of Wayne County’s intermediate school district. “I don’t think there will be significant pushback on that.”

The findings were released Wednesday morning, with press conferences planned in Lansing, Grand Rapids, and in the Detroit area.

Read the full report here: